Tag Archives: art

Surrealist Storyteller

November 25, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

For Artist Joe Nicholson, life after college wasn’t the masterpiece he had imagined. Fancy-schmancy art degree? Got it. Dead-end corporate job? Yep, got that too. Plenty of dough to make ends meet? Check. Despite all this, Nicholson kept putting his faith into black-and-white doodles he drew in his basement—just pen meeting paper, his savior in its infancy stage.

“College asked me to focus on one thing, painting,” Nicholson says. “I was tied down and didn’t even consider illustrating a possibility until after college. Once I did, everything changed.”

Now at age 32, Nicholson is a lot of things. Down on his luck isn’t one of them. Whether he’s creating his own illustrated books, freelancing for myriad local eateries, or preparing pieces to be shown in galleries, all his work manages to tell surreal and symbolic stories, with his whimsical and emotional style tying them all together.

Nicholson may be new to the professional illustration game, but this is hardly the first time he’s traded paintbrush for pencil and pen.

“Art has always been a part of who I am,” Nicholson says. “In preschool, I was the one who loved to spend his free time drawing the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It made me different.”

Throughout his adolescent life, Nicholson continued his pursuit of all things art, eventually receiving a bachelor’s degree with an emphasis in painting from the University of Nebraska at Omaha. While studying, he was exposed to different mediums but refocused fresh eys on art and putting brush to canvas.

“I wanted to grow up and become a painter of huge masterpieces that would hang in museums,” Nicholson says. “After I got out, I realized this path didn’t make sense for me. Then I got a corporate job and hated that, too.”

And so those aforementioned basement doodles became much more than a free-time hobby. After quitting his necktie-laden job, art began to be his focus once more, with his sketches acting as the start of full-blown illustrated storybooks.

His first two books, available for purchase on his online studio, exemplify his trademark style. Both are light on color but heavy on symbolism, exploring such themes as evolution versus creation and spiritual philosophy.

“I used to paint pictures that told stories,” Nicholson says. “I’m just taking that same idea and stretching it out into a more complicated, comprehensive thought. Each book takes an idea and spells it out, yet keeps it open for interpretation.”

One story, The Involuntary Life and Death of Seymour Finnegan, illustrates the adventures of a half-man, half-fish creature. Readers who look closely will see a fishhook on every page, a metaphor for the omnipresence of death and desire in any person’s life. His other illustrated story, The Birdhouse Man, shows the epic tale of a man with an empty birdhouse growing from his head. Totally normal reading, right? Totally not.

However, it’s this daring uniqueness in his work that’s led to Nicholson’s success. Both books were chosen for display in a 2016 exhibition at KANEKO.

“When we first met Joe, it became clear that art is truly his life’s pursuit,” says Chris Hochstetler, KANEKO’s executive director. “I would describe him as a contemporary philosopher who asks the same very deep and nagging questions that we all yearn to know, but through the depth of art.”

Beyond illustrated books, Nicholson uses his talents to help businesses tell their brand stories. One such job came from the most unlikely of places—with hands in suds and grime, washing dishes for the Boiler Room. Proof that even in the art world, it’s all about connections. His friendship with sous chef A.J. Swanda blossomed into a paying gig. Last year, Swanda opened his own restaurant, Ugly Duck, and commissioned his old pal to create a 250-square-foot mural and design T-shirts.

That’s not the only trendy midtown hangout that’s benefitted from Nicholson’s artistry. As a pseudo-reward for being a loyal regular, Nicholson was hired by Nite Owl bar to create wooden liquor menus and T-shirts with an old school Americana design. Yes, Nicholson knows food and drink very well, but he thought he was in over his head when hired by Definitive Vision to create a mural that doubles as one large color blindness test.

“I was really excited, then I thought, ‘Shit there’s a lot of science behind that,'” Nicholson says.

As with most things in Nicholson’s life, it all worked out, and the mural still lives on the waiting room wall.

For Nicholson, he’s playing the long game—planning next to create up to 10 more surreal storybooks. Even with his reborn love for illustrating, his preferred medium may change again. It’s not what he uses to create that drives him, rather the challenge to create. The struggle is real and very much wanted.

“With each new project, I push myself to do something that scares me,” Nicholson says. “It’s just fulfilling to now be at a place where my art isn’t just kept in the basement anymore.”

Visit joenicholsonstudios.com for more information.

This article published in the November/December 2017 edition of Encounter.

A Fluid Life

November 10, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Fluid.

That’s how digital graphic designer and fine art painter Dana Oltman describes her aesthetic.

As art director for Identity Marketing Group (she was previously at Rebel Interactive) she fulfills client project wishes. She says her branding design work consistently features “minimal, simple, clean” looks that, well, flow.

“Fluid is what I love,” she says. “Fluid is where I’m at now.”

Her abstract expressionistic fine art, especially her poured art work, is all about the swirls and natural organic fades of liquid flows.

“Most of the paints I use are acrylics,” she says. “which have as their base water, and so they’re very fluid.”

She invariably listens to music when painting in order to activate or induce that state of flow.

“What I do is based on whatever mood I’m in,” she says. “While design is very rigid—I like to have a plan and justify everything I do—painting is exactly the opposite. I like to work with the medium, just pick a paint, pick some colors, and basically put it on a surface and see what it does. It’s very much working with my medium to get random results, trying to affect it minimally as I go, letting gravity and fluid dynamics do the rest. It’s all very in the moment.”

If she does manipulate the image, she says, it’s for texture, and in those cases she may apply etching materials, resin, linoleum carvers, and even a culinary blow torch.

The images she creates on masonry board or wood panels and, occasionally, on canvas are often expressions of things found in nature–everything from nebulas in outer space to severe storm skies.

Her favorite skies appear after a storm at sunset. “The clouds are stacking up to the east after they’ve already moved through and the sun is shining from the west and you have orange, yellow, purple, red—which is my favorite color palette,” she says.

Her natural hair color is red, and she often sports highlights in different shades from her favorite palette.

In August, she drove to Beatrice, Nebraska, to catch the total solar eclipse, and she knows it’s only a matter of time before it shows up in one of her paintings.

Music is another source of inspiration for Oltman, 26, who loves going to local live shows and festivals.

Occasionally, her work is featured at local concerts and entertainment events. She did a live painting of a musician at an Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards showcase.

She’s also taken on art projects for local bands, including an album cover for The Big Deep.

Some of her paintings can be seen at Curb Appeal Salon & Spa in the Old Market. A broad sampling of her work is available on her website, danaoltman.com.

Additionally, she draws and makes photographs, which she shares on her Instagram page.

Other influences and inspirations range from high fashion to poetry. She did a multi-week study abroad in Japan learning that country’s visual culture. The Japan immersion naturally showed up in her work, and she intends returning one day.

She’s also a Francophile who’s visited Quebec, Canada, and France. She expects taking ever deeper dives into French culture and returning to France—the home base for her favorite art movement: Impressionism.

Oltman grew up in Bennington, Nebraska, and graduated with a fine arts degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She draws a clear distinction between graphic design and art activities. She loves both, but one’s her job and the other’s purely for pleasure. She likes the balance of producing on a schedule as part of an office team and creating art alone when she feels like it.

“Since I don’t have art hooked to a vocation, it’s in my court totally. I don’t have to rely on anyone,” she says. “If I don’t want to make stuff, I don’t make stuff. If I do, I do. It’s just totally free.”

On the design side, she’s finding her most satisfaction working on websites.

“It”s such an advancing field,” she says. “Websites are so versatile, and you can do so many things. And it’s just so nuanced. It’s a really pretty time for web design.”

Motion graphics and animation are two new areas she’s learning fast. Coding is another.

“I enjoy learning new things,” she says.
“I’m a learner.”

Oltman enjoys the meet-ups that the local American Institute of Graphic Arts chapter puts on, including BarCamp.

She also stays connected to the design community via social media.

As a self-identified millennial, she admits, “I definitely fit the label in respect to being super connected online, being liberal, wanting a meaningful career that isn’t too constricting and gives me creative output, focusing on experience over material things in life, etc.”

A couple years ago when legalizing same-sex marriage was struck down in Nebraska, Oltman made a graphic of the Husker “N” with the Human Rights Campaign logo imposed in it. “I’m for causes that focus on equal human rights,”
she says.

At UNL she was one of several art students who created a mural portrait of George Flippin, the first African-American athlete of note at the university. The mural adorns the campus multicultural center.

When not doing pro bono work for things she believes in, she donates to the American Civil Liberties Union and to disaster relief funds.

In whatever she does, she follows her passion. Her personal credo-tagline says it all:

“Doin’ me a life.”

This article appears in the November/December 2017 issue of Encounter.

Mike Hagel

November 9, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

When Mike Hagel landed at Chicago O’Hare Airport back in 1970, he didn’t know what to expect.

“Get out and start life,” his mother Betty told her sons.

So Mike, then 20 years old, walked out into the Windy City with the gray Samsonite suitcases his mother had given him as a graduation gift, his art portfolio, and a dream.

“The YMCA,” Mike told the cab driver.

“North or South?” he asked.

“South,” Mike replied.

The cabby dropped him in a rough neighborhood. Every 15 minutes his room shook from the L train roaring past. That first night, there were two shootings with police officers showing up late into the night.

But this young man from the small Nebraska town of Columbus remained undeterred. The next day, he moved into a dingy apartment complex.

“I felt like I should have had a shotgun,” his brother Tom says. “It was such a tiny place I could almost reach out the window and touch the other building.”

It was freezing, so Mike slept with his clothes on and saw icy puffs of his own breath in the mornings. During the day, he hunted for illustrator jobs.

“I wasn’t going to accept no,” Mike says.

Mike had known what he wanted to do since his fresh- man year of high school. His brother, Tom, remembers Mike’s cartoon sketches were as “good as any in the newspaper and he was just this little kid.”

His art teacher at Columbus High encouraged Mike to further hone his craft. He spent countless hours creating, designing, and imagining projects under the basement stairs at his workbench. A block of wood transformed into an automobile with a quality paint job. And it earned him some scholarship money from General Motors.

Despite his love of cars, Mike was still drawn to the realistic Norman Rockwell ads. He attended the Colorado Institute of Art, taking classes during the summer to finish in two years. After Tom and his other brother Chuck returned from Vietnam, Mike knew it was time to draw his own history.

After about a week of searching, Mike landed an apprentice job for $50 a week with a graphic arts firm, Feldkamp-Malloy.

“I was just so pumped to get into the business,” Mike recalls. “It’s a very tough industry to get into for a young person.”

Accompanied by some smooth jazz and a cigarette, Mike would work late into the night. His bosses were akin to those in the show Mad Men, complete with liquid lunches.

Mike rarely bombed a job. His tenacity and creativity earned him a spot as staff illustrator for the board plus a pay increase of $100. By 1973, he was making $12,000 a year and thought he had the “world by the tail.”

He was soon landing bigger clients, such as Kellogg’s and Miller, and went on to work 47 years in the business (spending 24 years at ad agencies on Michigan Avenue in Chicago).

Now with a studio in Omaha, Mike points toward a lampshade purchased at an antique store. Mike told the owner he painted the Miller High Life Lady on the Moon, but she never believed him. He bought his own art for about $50.

He’s grown accustomed to seeing his work appear unexpectedly, for example: one of his portraits of lawyer Clarence Darrow on an episode of L.A. Law. His works have also been featured in the Strategic Air and Space Museum and the Pentagon. He is represented locally by the gallery Regency Parkway Art.

Mike works as an adjunct professor at Metropolitan Community College, where he teaches graphic design.

“Everyone can learn to draw if they have the desire to learn,” he believes. “The talent comes from the desire to learn.”

Mike calls himself an old dinosaur who still draws and paints without the assistance of CGI or computer tools commonly used today.

But Tom, a retired law professor from the University of Dayton School of Law, says Mike is uncommonly talented.

The younger Hagel brother is widely known for his aviation paintings, some of which hang in the Pentagon. His favorite is of a World War II battle titled Simpson Harbor. Mike knew the man who led the mission, and he calls Lieutenant General John Henebry “the finest man I ever knew.”

The painting depicts B-25 bombers in action over the blue waters of the South Pacific, attacking Japanese warships. Billows of smoke drift in blue skies and explosions are the backdrop. Henebry seems to fly out of the chillingly accurate portrayal, guns a-blazin’. He proudly shows off the signatures at the bottom of the painting, from the men who fought in the battle. Kathy, his wife of 10 years, calls his process “intense” and “inspired.” Mike did extensive research, read mission reports, and conducted interviews to ensure everything about the day was historically relevant right down to the altitude, atmosphere, and time of day.

Mike donated Simpson Harbor to the Air Force in 1990. It wasn’t his first artwork donation. In fact, he donated nearly a dozen aviation-themed paintings to the Air Force between 1977 and 1993.

Simpson Harbor used to hang in the office of Gen. Colin Powell at the Pentagon. Secretary of Defense James Mattis liked the painting so much that it now hangs in his office. And it hung outside the office when Chuck, the eldest Hagel brother, held the defense secretary position from 2013 to 2015. Mike jokes he was in the Pentagon years before Chuck.

Mike has spent years drawing caricatures of his brother Chuck, the former Republican senator from Nebraska, who finally asked for an official portrait.

Mike started the process by taking 76 photos from different angles and poses. From there, he drew a number of color and pencil sketches. Chuck picked the final one he liked the best.

“It’s extremely accurate and realistic,” Chuck says. “I’m a big fan.”

Mike noticed other portraits of former secretaries had something of their service incorporated in the background. Chuck thought what set his apart was the Combat Infantry Badge in the left-hand corner of the portrait.

The Department of Defense unveiled the portrait at the Pentagon in May 2017.

“It will be something around long after I’m gone, which is a nice feeling,” Mike says.

It was the first official portrait of a secretary not paid for by the United States government. Mike and Chuck worked out a price.

“Two cases of PBR [Pabst Blue Ribbon] and 12 frozen DiGiorno’s pizzas,” Mike says, joking.

Mike, 68, isn’t resting on his laurels. In his free time, he likes collecting motorcycles, drinking beer, and shooting pool. Or spending time with his wife and three grown children. As a commercial artist, he was given a problem to solve, but now he uses his imagination. He starts with a blank canvas, a cup of coffee, then heads down to his studio in the mornings.

The studio showcases a melting pot of styles. A huge life-like Henry Fonda from the Grapes of Wrath sits in the center of the room, while an abstract Highway 20 Revisited is reminiscent of an impressionist painting with cool blues, dark greens, and bright yellow and oranges streaking next to a hot red highway.

Mike reclines in his paint-spattered leather chair, having traded corporate business attire for the comfort of jeans and a polo shirt. Next to him is a combination of realistic and abstract works: a cow with long horns and a surreal background. Mike has been playing with mixing new mediums.

“Tom, Chuck, and I—all three of us—have left a mark that we were here,” Mike says. “I can’t ask for more than that.”

Visit regencyparkwayart.com for the Omaha gallery representing Mike Hagel.

This article was printed in the November/December edition of Omaha Magazine.

Pigeon Bros

October 19, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Illustration by Pigeon Bros.

It’s like watching two parts of the same brain. When Jack Blanket and Ryan Showers are together, it’s just the two of them, taking turns finishing each other’s sentences and stories. Their words flow back and forth, forming a single curse-word-laden stream of consciousness. But that’s not to say these brothers are free from a little sibling rivalry.

“Stop. Stop. STOP. Don’t draw on my drawing,” Blanket says as his pencil glides over paper, doodling out shaded shapes, while Showers makes a move to add his own creative contribution.

“I wouldn’t…” Showers begins.

“Wouldn’t be an ass? Yes, yes, you would,” Blanket continues.

Believe it or not, this exchange, like most of their conversations, is all said with deadpan, sarcastically saccharine love. To them, calling one another an ass is a compliment. While the duo play brothers, friends, and roomies in life, they’re yin and yang in the world of local Omaha art—Blanket an accomplished stop motion animator and Showers an eccentric and eclectic illustrator.

“As far as I know, we’ve always been drawing and creating,” says Blanket, the younger sibling by approximately one year. “There’s always been paper and pencil around.”

Born and raised across the river in Council Bluffs, Blanket and Showers are just two of eight siblings, each one living in different parts of the country, all of them dabbling in art either full-time or for fun. However, given their upbringing, it’s no surprise the family is now made up of everything from illustrators and animators to video game creators and programmers. They were homeschooled by their mother, who based her curriculum largely on creative expression. Their father illustrated.

Even though their childhood was awash in arts, crafts, doodles, and drawings, the two brothers didn’t graduate high school as mini Monets. It was through years of self-learning and discovery that their artistic talents began to bloom.

Blanket taught himself to animate through online tutorials. After all, who needs a fancy-shmancy liberal arts degree when you’ve got Google and YouTube as professors? Years of plugging and playing and numerous “crashed crappy computers” later, Blanket acquired the skills to land freelance animation work.

He’s made several animated games and music videos for local musicians and labels, One of his favorites was for a Chicago-based hip-hop and soul group, Sidewalk Chalk. Though simple, his flashing red, white, and black drawings in the video for their song “Dig” helps bring to life the message behind the lyrics, which details the effect media has on the public’s perception of police violence.

“To create it, you just go step-by-step, line-by-line, translating lyrics to images,” Blanket says. “Three minutes might really be three months of work.”

As for his artistic name, a high school girlfriend’s mother created it in an instant years ago. She said she knew too many Nathans, his real name, and chose to call him Jack Blanket instead. More than a decade later and the moniker has survived, further separating his work and artistic identity from his brother.

“We’re cut from the same cloth but we really are very different, both personally and with our art,” Blanket says.

One glance at their work and any viewer would agree. Showers steers clear of animation, instead creating detailed drawings, often sparse in color but big in imagination. Haunting images of monsters, animals in human clothes, and cartoonish people, he’s done it all.

“My process is much slower than my brother’s. I’ll start by making a rough skeleton and then sit on it for a really long time,” Showers says. “Music, my medicine, is always a huge catalyst to get me going.”

Beyond the musical styling of bands like King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, Showers is inspired by anime and fashion magazines, which he spent hours copying and drawing to perfect his craft.

“Life is f***ed sometimes, so I strive to create work that takes people somewhere else,” Showers says. “The potency of expanding imagination is so valuable. Maybe my pieces help with that.”

While he avoids collaborations, including with his brother, Showers aspires to create pop-up shops around town that feature work from a variety of local creators. For now, he shows pieces for sale in Caffeine Dreams and uses his Instagram as an online portfolio to market himself and gain more work. By displaying animations on YouTube, Blanket harnesses the power of social media.

“Artists need to have an online presence now,” Blanket says. “As a low-level artist, you do a lot better putting yourself out there and responding to your audience through these mediums.”

When they’re not turning news feeds into galleries, the two brothers share an apartment but hardly see one another. Showers admittedly disappears for days, often to look high and low for inspiration, even sifting through dumpsters and exploring vacant buildings. Since art isn’t always a field filled with money, especially for up-and-coming creators, the two spend even more time apart working odd jobs to pay rent.

“We’ve grown accustomed to a humble lifestyle,” Showers says. “I’m willing to wash dishes for a living if it means I can have an imagination.”

So when they get together, it’s a nostalgic celebration. On a particularly warm June day, the siblings got the chance to share an afternoon on the back patio of Caffeine Dreams. Showers veiled his eyes from the gleaming sun with oversized sunglasses while Blanket embraced the warmth, sitting outside the shade with his painted fingernails gleaming in the light. Just as with art, the two take different paths, each enjoying the summer day in their own way.

While you may not see pom-poms at their sides as they sip coffee and share memories, these two really are one another’s biggest cheerleaders, bonded by blood and a love for all things creative.

“Our fields are so highly different,” Showers says. “In my mind, there is no competition, no rivalry, no…”

“No reason not to be supportive,” Blanket finishes. “There’s just mutual respect.”

Visit instagram.com/thee_owl or instagram.com/score6 to view more of Pigeon Brothers’ art.

This article appears in the September/October 2017 edition of Encounter Magazine.

Pigeon Brothers

Bug Out

October 5, 2017 by
Photography by Dave Crane

Sexy moths flap their wings (and cleavage). Some dude dressed like a lightning bug flashes his butt. The audience swarms the stage at Midtown Art (formerly Midtown Art Supply)—with antennae, arms, and legs flailing—rocking to performances by local hardcore noise bands.

There are edible snacks made of insects. Bug-themed artwork covers the walls of the adjacent Harney Street Gallery. It’s like a mosquito trap for Omaha’s weirdest and most creative. But the main event? That would be the keynote bug lecture and photo slideshow by Dave Crane.

Crane—a wetlands biologist with the Army Corps of Engineers—is the co-founder and co-curator of the Omaha Bug Symposium, the strangest science-art-music combo this side of the topsoil.

Crane’s lecture is a psychedelic crash course in entomology (i.e., the study of insects), a legit science presentation packed with big words and Latin binomial names. His photo slideshow features beautiful imagery (zoomed and panned to show macro views of tiny insects like you’ve never seen before) along with ludicrous commentary.

At the 2016 event, Crane’s younger brother (Omaha artist Dan Crane) shouts a question, “Because I find them so fascinating, why are they called boring beetles?” The elder Crane responds to his brother, and other hecklers’ comments, with a genuine enthusiasm that is contagious.

His passion for bugs started at a young age. “I’ve been interested in nature, in general, all my life,” Crane says. “I was an adventurous, outdoorsy kind of kid. I wore holes in my clothes faster than anyone else I knew. Around the age of 7, I started attending week-long day camps at Fontenelle Forest and Neale Woods every summer. I think it was at these camps when I really honed in on bugs. I’d come home from the camps and start looking for the things I found while in the wild. Around this time, I started collecting bugs I’d find around my neighborhood. My parents picked up on this and started buying me field guides and insect preservation boxes. I started making my own collection tools, like a plastic bag duct taped to a long stick for catching butterflies and dragonflies. I had a terrarium out in the back yard that I would put captured praying mantids into to watch them fight, mate, and eat prey. I amassed a rather large insect collection—probably 40 species—by the time I was 12, but without knowing about proper preservation methods, the specimens were consumed by pests and all turned to dust.”

Discouraged by early attempts at insect preservation, Crane’s insectophilic tendencies lay dormant until roughly age 21. That’s when he received his first digital camera as a birthday gift.

“I was snapping away outside one day and noticed a damselfly on my car antennae,” he says. “I snapped a photo of it, and when I reviewed the image, it was like all the memories I had chasing bugs as a kid came rushing back to me. That moment revived my interest in bugs. I was hooked. Taking photos of all sorts of macroinvertebrates became my No. 1 hobby, if not obsession. From then on, I would dedicate more and more time to taking photos of bugs all around me—when I traveled, when I went camping, when I went to the bar, etc. I took photos for the sake of seeing things up close and learning about them, never really with the intention of printing them out as pieces of art.”

Crane’s photographic work captures the essence of bugs’ behavior, rather than focusing on images “that would look nice on a wall.” He prizes subject matter with informative storytelling potential over aesthetics.

Dave Crane. Photo by Bill Sitzmann

“I feel that presenting my photos in this style does them the most justice. I have some very high-definition photos, and they deserve to be blown up, zoomed in, and explored. The content in the photos is very well served by being plastered on a 10-foot-by-10-foot projector screen so every little detail can be magnified and scrutinized by the crowd. Before these bug shows, I started making calendars in 2007 for family and friends. Otherwise, I basically just stockpiled my photos for seven years—until I started showing them off as the bug shows.”

The 2017 Omaha Bug Symposium takes place at OutrSpaces (528 S. 24th St.) on October 7. It will be Crane’s fifth (and fourth annual) bug show. The inaugural event in 2014 went by the name “Nebraska Insect Showcase” because it was held at Midtown Art Supply the weekend following the Nebraska Hardcore Showcase.*

That first year of the event consisted of Crane “giving a two-hour presentation, followed by multiple sets of bug-themed noise bands, and topped off with one of the most bizarre, horrifying bug worship performance art piece I have ever witnessed,” he says. “It was a blast, so we started planning the second one instantly.”

The event’s format has since remained essentially the same. Bug food, bug art, and dance competitions joined the lineup in 2015.

The original Nebraska Insect Showcase co-organizer, Ethan Happe, parted ways with the event to focus more on entomophagy (eating insects). But Crane wasn’t ready to call it quits. He met Andy Matz in 2016 while planning his third bug show.

Matz, who has a degree in entomology, became a co-lecturer and co-organizer for the 2016 event, the first to go by the name “Omaha Bug Symposium.” Joining the party were bug costume contests, insect snacks prepared by local chefs, and kegs sponsored by Upstream Brewing Co.

Crane and Matz continued their collaboration in planning a special 2017 Omaha Moth Night to coincide with National Moth Week in July (which, despite the name, is a worldwide citizen science initiative encouraging the public to learn more about moths). Omaha Moth Night used the same Bug Symposium format with music, art, lecture, and costume contest.

“Ours had to be the weirdest National Moth Week event, but it fit right in with the spirit of the week, as well as the concept of the Omaha Bug Symposium,” Crane says. “The moth night really was a bit of an experiment just as much as it was something we were genuinely excited to put on. The turnout was similar to last year’s symposium, and I’d say we were highly successful in our attempts to interweave moth art, information, music, and the human connection with moths into a fun night for all.”

Attendance grows each year. Insect artworks continue to surprise. Meanwhile, Crane is thrilled to encourage others to share his love for bugs and the greater outdoors.

“A lot of people go ‘birding,’ but I go ‘bugging,’” Crane says, describing his photo-shooting sessions. “The most important part of bugging is to do it frequently. I think as you start out you’re just fascinated by everything, you’ll see a lot of things from angles and magnifications that you’ve never seen before. It’s like seeing the world the way it really is for the first time.”

Crane has developed what he refers to as “bug-eyes.” He’s usually the first (or only) person to spot a bug while out walking the streets or out in the field.

“If I’m walking through a field of weeds, I’m not searching for the next pretty flower, I’m subconsciously scanning every bit of green for that one bug-shaped discrepancy,” he says. “After so many years, I’m still fascinated with snapping a photo just to look at something around me close up. I love using my camera as a portable, photographic microscope, revealing truth that’s just beyond the naked eye.”

Visit facebook.com/omahabugsymposium for more information.

This article published in the 2017 September/October edition of Encounter Magazine.

*UPDATE: The host venue moved from Midtown Art and Harney Street Gallery to OutrSpaces after the publication of the issue. OutrSpaces is located at 528 S. 24th St. 

Mary Zicafoose

October 4, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The story of Mary Zicafoose—and her “Hope & Healing” tapestries—is one of unwavering focus, intensity, family tragedy, and a simple red scarf.

The world-renowned weaver’s two tapestries, each measuring 12 feet long and more than 9 feet wide, were recently unveiled in Omaha.

Not in a gallery. They’re in a hospital.

“Hope & Healing” hang in the lobby of the Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center. The words “hope” and “healing” are woven in 16 languages. The two tapestries greet those entering through the center’s front doors.

“It’s very powerful to put all who come into the cancer center at ease—from our patients, their families, staff, students, and visitors,” says Amy E. Jenson, executive director of the Healing Arts Program at the Buffett Cancer Center. The Healing Arts Program aspires to reduce pain perception, anxiety, and depression in cancer patients.

It took Zicafoose, with the help of three studio assistants, almost one year to create the two tapestries. They worked up to seven days a week in her separate wet and dry studios in Omaha. They worked daily in front of dye pots and looms. Her process, called ikat, which means “to wrap,” is methodical and intense. Ikat is a meticulous “resist dye” textile technique, measuring and stretching individual threads, grouping them into bundles, and wrapping portions of the bundles with fabric into a specific design. The threads are immersed in a dye bath, where the unwrapped areas soak up the dye while the wrapped areas resist it. All this happens before they are woven into a fabric. Precise measurement in the project was crucial, as the words “Hope” and “Healing” had to be wrapped, dyed, and woven exactly where the design specified. In the end, 1,000 skeins of yarn were used.

“Watch Mary working at her loom for just a couple of minutes, and you’ll witness this incredible connection between maker and material that a lot of young artists dream of achieving,” says Karin Campbell, Phil Willson Curator of Contemporary Art at Joslyn Art Museum. “She is deeply invested in not just the outcome of her weaving, but also the process. This commitment to the handmade and her willingness to toil sets Mary apart.”

In an artist statement on her website, Zicafoose describes the process as a “meditative activity that draws you in, not out. One that has triggered my memory of who I am and what I came to do.”

While at work on the project, Zicafoose says her thoughts often turned to family. To her brother. The one she lost.

Her brother died of cancer. The five panels of the two tapestries were, after all, destined to hang in a cancer center.

Zicafoose explains that his death fueled her perception of illness, and in a way, led to a mission that was years in the making.

“If there’s any way I can facilitate healing as an artist, I want to do it,” she says while seated in the contemporary lobby of the cancer center.

She did not take a direct route to get to this point.

Cancer took Zicafoose’s brother while they were both in high school in Michigan. Following the tragedy, everyone assumed she would be inspired to become a nurse, like her mother. But Zicafoose wasn’t interested in healing the world that way. Coming from a family of many artists, she gravitated toward creative therapy. 

She studied photography as an undergraduate at St. Mary’s College/University of Notre Dame and then moved to Chicago, working in clay as a graduate student. While still in graduate school, she married and moved to Nebraska. The young couple lived on her husband’s family farm outside of Mead.

One prophetic day, a studio neighbor invited her to sit at a loom.

Her first piece was far from perfect (“It was a simple little red mohair scarf,” she says). Nevertheless, seated in front of the loom, Zicafoose felt she had discovered her destiny. She describes the artistic epiphany as a switch turning on.

“I’m glad it was so clear,” she says.

Knowing nothing about weaving, she learned the way everyone else has for the past 2,000 years: one baby step at a time. From weaving simple scarfs she moved to blankets, then she began to make tablecloths—approaching each piece as a fine artist rather than a craftsman.

Early on, she had big ideas but lacked the ability to realize them—at least not yet. She joined the Hand Weaver’s Guild of Lincoln for guidance, and, through several years of hard work, her abilities finally caught up with her ideas.

“I envisioned doing large-scale, graphically impactful tapestries. That was always the mission,” she says. “And today I am there, which is really satisfying.”

Zicafoose’s work hangs in U.S. embassies around the world, and in galleries, corporations, and homes throughout the country, including the San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles. They also hang in museums closer to home at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts in Omaha and the Museum of Nebraska Art in Kearney. She teaches, writes articles, and has held leadership positions, including eight years as co-director of the board for the American Tapestry Alliance.

“In her leadership role with ATA, Mary spoke passionately and eloquently as an advocate for contemporary tapestry,” says Mary Lane, executive director of the American Tapestry Alliance. “She inspired a level of professionalism and commitment in those with whom she worked…Despite her very successful and demanding career as an artist, Mary is always willing to give more.”

Others echo similar sentiments about Zicafoose’s work and dedication.

“She’s someone who’s enjoyable to work with because of her intensity to her art,” says John Rogers, owner of Gallery 72, where Zicafoose’s work once hung.

“Every conversation I have with Mary reminds me of why I became a curator,” Joslyn’s Karin Campbell says. “She is skilled, generous, insightful, and, perhaps most importantly, she possesses an unwavering faith in the power of art.” 

Zicafoose explains her approach to the Buffett Center tapestries: “If you’re going to devote a year of your life to creating art for a building, the work must be powerful and the process so worth it.”

Zicafoose looks around the lobby of the cancer center, pausing to think about the work she’s done.

“We know that healing is a very complex paradigm, and Western medicine can only take us so far,” she says. “The arts are doorways to access subtle energy fields, that is what they do best. And if per chance the arts can carry and stimulate subtle energy for healing, then fill this place up with great art.”

Visit buffettcancercenter.com/facility/art-healing for more information about the Buffett Cancer Center where the “Hope & Healing” tapestries hang. Visit maryzicafoose.com for more information about the artist.

This article was printed in the September/October 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

2017 September/October Exhibits

September 1, 2017 by
Photography by contributed

KINETIC, Through Oct. 14 at KANEKO, 1111 Jones St. KINETIC at KANEKO explores the art and science of movement, and the perception of motion. This collaborative exhibition will feature visual art, interactive sculpture, and experiential learning opportunities developed to strengthen the understanding of kinetics in everyday life. Admission: free. 402-341-3800.
thekaneko.org

“Move Over, Sir”: Women Working on the Railroad, Through Oct. 28 at Union Pacific Railroad Museum, 200 Pearl St., Council Bluffs. This exhibit traces the contributions that women have made to the railroad industry throughout the past 150 years. Admission: free. 712-329-8307.
uprrmuseum.org

A Century of Omaha Steaks: The Story of America’s Original Butcher, Through Nov. 11 at The Durham Museum, 801 S. 10th St. This exhibit celebrates 100 years of one of Omaha’s most well-known businesses. Founded in 1917, today Omaha Steaks sells over 14 million pounds of beef annually to their 3 million active customers around the nation. The exhibit will showcase photographs, archival documents, and historic facts from the company archive. Admission: $11 adults, $8 seniors (62+), $7 children (3-12), free for children under 3. 402-444-5071.
durhammuseum.org

“A Momentous Collection” at The Durham Museum through Jan. 14

A Momentous Collection: Pivotal Moments in Byron Reed’s Lifetime, Through Jan. 14 at The Durham Museum, 801 S. 10th St. Byron Reed established the first real estate agency in Omaha before Nebraska achieved statehood. In his spare time he had a passion for collecting rarities. Today, he is thought to be one of the greatest collectors of the 19th century. Admission: $11 adults, $8 seniors (62+), $7 children (3-12), free for children under 3. 402-444-5071.
durhammuseum.org

Christina Narwicz, Sept. 1-Oct. 20 at Fred Simon Gallery, 1004 Farnam St. This exhibit displays several works by local abstract painter Christina Narwicz. Admission: free. 402-595-2122.
artscouncil.nebraska.gov

Omaha North Hills Pottery Tour, Oct. 7-8 at various locations. The annual North Hills Pottery Tour starts at the Florence Mill before continuing northward to Dennison Pottery in Ponca Hills, Too Far North Wines in Fort Calhoun, and Big Table Studios in Herman. The tour features 19 local and national clay artists. The Florence Mill also features a pumpkin patch and bake sale. 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturday; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday.
omahanorthhillspotterytour.com

Zoom Into Nano, Oct. 7-Jan. 7 at The Durham Museum, 801 S. 10th St. This new exhibit will magnify the microscopic world of nanotechnology by 100 million times with interactive exhibits, such as a virtual RNA molecule. Admission: $11 adults, $8 seniors (62+), $7 children (3-12), free for children under 3. 402-444-5071.
durhammuseum.org

Marks of Genius: 100 Extraordinary Drawings from the Minneapolis Institute of Art, Oct. 7-Jan. 7 at Joslyn Museum, 2200 Dodge St. Drawings, watercolors, oil sketches, and pastels dating from the Middle Ages to the present day reveal the distinct hand and inspired touch of the most important artists from the past five centuries, including Guercino, Tiepolo, Delacroix, Degas, Kollwitz, Nolde, Hopper, and Ruscha. Tickets: $10 adults (18+), free for members, children, and college students with ID. 402-342-3300.
joslyn.org

Benefit Art Auction Exhibition, Oct. 14-27 at Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, 724 S. 12th St. Preview works from more than 250 local, regional, and national artists selected to participate in this year’s benefit auction, the Bemis’ annual fundraiser. 402-341-7130.
bemiscenter.org

**Event times and details may change. Check with venue or event organizer to confirm.

Lunch With Buffett

August 13, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

With food-inspired songs such as “Charleston’s,” “Medium Rare,” and the album’s title track, the duo displays a penchant for sweet-sounding beats and aspirations to dine with Omaha’s most affluent resident, Warren Buffett.

They speculate that arranging lunch with the local billionaire would be easier than getting airplay on local radio stations.

“We want to be heard,” Big Tate says. “The radio DJ abides by guidelines that [forbid] touching the streets. They are afraid to challenge the norm.”

“Radio is stagnant,” Absolut-P adds. “It isn’t as influential as it once was. If we want to make an impact, we’d be better off putting together a lunch with Warren Buffett and creating a buzz from that.”

Or maybe just make up a song about having lunch with Buffett.

Big Tate

That sort of creative thinking would be the driving force behind Absolut-P (aka Stevin Taylor) and Big Tate (aka James Buckley) collaborating on the album.

The idea came from another friend’s fateful encounter with Buffett at a now-closed Omaha steakhouse known to be one of Buffett’s favorite local restaurants.

“A friend of mine happened to be eating at Piccolo Pete’s when she called to tell me that Warren Buffett and Bill Gates were sitting across from her,” Big Tate recalls. “I told her that I needed her to get a picture of them by any means. I’m always thinking of ways to promote our music with imagery and catchy choruses. I was sure that I could come up with a song for that image.”

Big Tate was familiar with Buffett’s history of auctioning off a “power lunch” for charity. In 2016, an anonymous bidder paid $3,456,789 for the experience, with the money going to benefit the Glide Foundation, a San Francisco nonprofit dedicated to helping homeless and underprivileged residents.

For months, Big Tate continued to stew over his idea. Later in 2016, he partnered with local producer Absolut-P (the P stands for “Perfection”), and they were able to create an infectious melody.

The song’s music video even featured a faux cameo by Buffett (thanks to a cut-out photograph of the billionaire’s face pasted over one of their friends).

They consider it an homage to the wealthy hometown hero.

“We’re from the north side of Omaha, and you don’t see those types of people on the north side,” Big Tate explains. “Other than Bud Crawford, it’s hard to relate to anyone on such a big stage. It’s good to look up to self-made men.”

Absolut-P

“As independent artists, Warren Buffett’s entrepreneurial spirit gives us a sense of self-pride,” Absolut-P says. “He shows us that by investing in ourselves we can reap big rewards.” 

One such investment involved professional mastering for the album by Rick Carson at Make Believe Studios. Absolut-P and Big Tate hope the song resonates with fans of hip-hop, Omaha, and Buffett alike. They released the album Dec. 31, 2016 (with a parental advisory warning for explicit content).

“The album-making process was so organic,” says Big Tate, explaining that hip-hop works best when pursued in a natural, fun way. “We just made songs about what we like; everyone likes to eat at a nice restaurant and order a good prime rib. That made us think of Charleston’s; they have some of the best steaks in Omaha. I like my steak well-done, but I’ve heard that they are very good medium-rare.”

When asked where they would like to take Buffett for lunch, both agree that Time Out Foods or The Taste’s of Soul Cafe would be a good place to accommodate them.

“I’m sure Warren Buffett is used to eating at the finest establishments,” Absolut-P says. “I’d want to give him a taste of our roots with some good food for the soul.”

Find Big Tate on Twitter at @BigTate402 and Absolut-P at @IAmAbsolutP. Both musicians frequently release new songs on social media. Their respective Soundcloud accounts are soundcloud.com/big-tate and soundcloud.com/absolut-p. Lunch with Buffett is available on iTunes, Spotify, Tidal, Spinrilla, Google Play, and YouTube. Copies are sold at Homer’s in downtown Omaha.

This article appears in the July/August 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

*Editor’s note: The printed edition misspelled Taylor’s first name as Steven.

Bringing Meaningful Design Conversations to Omaha

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Architecture as an intellectual endeavor extends far beyond brick-and-mortar structures. For designer Andrew Conzett, architecture is a form of problem-solving and way to rewrite immediate questions about the built environment through a culturally sensitive lens. Early in his career, he positioned his curiosity at one of Omaha’s most creatively focused firms, developed numerous discipline-blurring projects, and helped curate a robust series of lectures with the Omaha chapter of the American Institute of Architects. This fusion of localized projects and international discourse is one that not only pushes his own practice forward, but also challenges existing norms and perceptions of regional architecture.

Conzett grew up in Omaha. Since a young age, he was inspired by his father, a civil engineer at a large international firm, and his mother, who was consistently involved with social service and nonprofit organizations. As a soon-to-be licensed architect, Conzett is a cocktail of both. He has always been keenly interested in art and landscape, both of which were influential in his childhood years and helped to inform his atypical response to the “I-always-wanted-to-be-an-architect” story ubiquitous amongst peers (many say it was from building with LEGO bricks as a child). During high school, a design competition piqued his interest. This community-focused extracurricular project, which combined multi-disciplinary teamwork and a design-based approach, prompted him to apply to the College of Design at Iowa State University.

While at Iowa State, his intense studio assignments were mixed with conversations and projects with artists and creative thinkers. Working alongside a diversity of artistic studies pushed him to see the multiplicity of architecture. During his final year in the architecture program, one of Conzett’s classmates responded to his non-binary projects by asking, “Do you want to be an installation artist or architect?” Conzett did not know how to respond; however, this prompt of either/or has now become a defining feature of his practice.

While studying, Conzett diversified his architectural coursework with internships at the Omaha Public Library and the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, where he interned with artist Sean Ward and curator Hesse McGraw. After graduating in 2010, he moved to Omaha and was soon commissioned to design an office pod installation at the headquarters of Bozell. The project resulted in a spatial intervention that was recognized by the AIA Central States Region’s Excellence in Design Awards for “Detail Honor and the Interior Design Best of Year Award for Budget Interiors.”

His interests in a diverse range of project types brought him to his current position at Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture in 2011. At the collaborative open studio in north downtown where architects work alongside interior designers, graphic designers, artists, and engineers, Conzett is staying busy outside the office as well.

His CV for research-based and experimental projects is dense. Stepping one foot outside the firm, Conzett has worked collaboratively on award-winning projects with Emerging Terrain, the Anti-Defamation League, and the Council Bluffs Park System, including River’s Edge Park. Each project allows him to intensely research form, material, and site. They also provide an instant design-to-built-project process that allows ideas to come to fruition faster than with traditional design-bid-build projects, which often take years to complete. These research-based projects also speak to his interest in architecture as built form that has the ability to blur lines between disciplines and methodologies.

For Conzett, “contemporary architecture practice requires thinking about new methods and materials, and thus inspires me to seek out unique project types as a way to expand my knowledge of design and the built environment.”

His most recent endeavor, the AIA Omaha lecture series, conflates his efforts in community activities and intellectual pursuits. Organized in collaboration with Ross Miller and other AIA Omaha members, the 2017 lecture series is a thought-provoking forum for design thinking. Bringing in award-winning international and national architects, such as Mike Nesbit of Morphosis in Los Angeles and Kai-Uwe Bergmann of Bjarke Ingles Group in Copenhagen, the role of these lectures are two-fold. First, they are an opportunity for professional architects and the general public to participate in architectural discourse. Secondly, the lectures provide a voice for a range of architectural practices that are advancing disciplinary boundaries.

While the series may seem hyper-niche, the visiting lecturers produce a diverse range of project types. These architects discuss the scholarly and tactile impact of design beyond simply making buildings. As award-winning content creators, the lecturers stimulate the public and challenge architects to aim their work to an elevated level of design excellence.

“It is always good to hear professionals talk about their design process and work,” says Emily Andersen, owner of DeOld Andersen Architecture. “But it is even more important to have lecturers come to Omaha that are truly challenging assumptions. The lectures bring the potential of a meaningful conversation that allows us to see into the creative process of other design professionals. And so I really appreciate the work that AIA does, as well as Design Alliance Omaha to help bring that discourse here.”

In all of his work, Conzett is running against the boundaries of the discipline with a keen understanding that traditional definitions of architecture and the built environment deserve to be challenged and pushed forward. “Opportunities such as professional work with [Alley Poyner], design-build exhibition and installation commissions, and the AIA Omaha lecture series are all ways for me to continue to experiment with and better understand the practice of architecture,” he says.

Visit aiaomaha.org/lecture-series for more information.

This article was printed in the Summer 2017 edition of B2B.